National Catholic Register


The View from the Other Side of the Rio

BY Alejandro Bermudez

May 16-22, 1999 Issue | Posted 5/16/99 at 1:00 PM


In his postsynodal apostolic exhortation The Church in America, Pope John Paul II issued a strong appeal for conceiving of the Americas as one united continent — “Not the Americas, but America,” as he stressed. He was not speaking of a dream for sometime in the future. He was giving spiritual backbone to what is already a reality.

Follow me for a moment on this.

Both sides of the Rio Grande share more things that they think. To start with, they share the pervasive U.S. media culture: More than 65% of Latin American TV programs are “canned” — translated from U.S. television. And each day an increasing number of Latin Americans can follow U.S. television in real time through cheap cable providers. At the moment I write this in Peru, I am watching the Colorado Rockies beat the Pittsburgh Pirates on Denver WB2.

Since the media not only convey entertainment, but culture, Latin Americans, especially the young ones, are sharing with North Americans more than just TV programs; they are sharing common cultural icons. So, the Pope's call to Catholics on both sides of the Rio Grande is not to create a common ground — one already exists — but to make sure that the new common culture is not dominated by secularism and relativism, but based on strong spiritual values.

Among other things, the Pope's “American dream” requires us to overcome mutual stereotypes and ensure a more balanced, two-way exchange of cultural values. For many North Americans, the region south of the Rio Grande is little more than a blend of fiesta, siesta and mañana. Meanwhile, for Latin Americans who perceive the United States only through the media, Uncle Sam is somewhere between Jerry Springer and MTV.

Catholics are in a position to help eliminate these oversimplifications, not only because the Holy Father asks us to, but because the universal nature of the Church gives us the best resources for building a global culture with a human, and therefore spiritual, face.

This openness to the universal will give Catholics on both sides of the continent opportunities to share perspectives that can help the other side understand and face local challenges and problems.

The killings at Littleton provide a dramatic example. The horrific news caught me while I was in Miami; and though I live in Peru, the images of Columbine High School and its surroundings are more familiar to me than to many Americans because one of my best friends, who I visit frequently, lives in Littleton.

But, still, I am not from the United States and many things that are taken for granted there are surprising for me — sometimes even shocking.

Television programs, particularly those channels or shows addressed to kids and teen-agers, have always left me with the eerie feeling that if I were a North American teen-ager I would have a hard time resisting the pressure of the media culture.

From TV commercials to music videos, from cartoons to soap operas, the same message is constantly hammered: You have to be successful, powerful and pretty if you want to be cool. U.S. teen-agers are aggressively told how to dress, how to act, how to treat parents, what to eat and drink, what to have and what to pursue if they want to be “in.” Their emotional strings are constantly being pulled by highly sophisticated messages that “teach” them how to be “free.”

But what weapons are they given to confront this bombardment with messages? From the eyes of a Latin American “regular Juan,” it seems that they basically receive useless cotton candy.

Since my days as a high school exchange student, each time I come back to the United States, I am surprised to see that moral messages are more watered down than the last time — in order not to offend an indefinable, and sometimes imaginary, “someone.” And objective criteria, which in the recent past were undisputed certainties based on common sense, are now merely one possible alternative among many others equally valid — just because of what is now politically correct.

So here is the contradiction: kids are left “free” from moral influences, while they are carpet-bombed with the message that they can be “cool” only if they have specific things that are usually out of their reach — a beautiful face, a lean body, fancy possessions and so on. Their value does not come from the unchangeable dignity of being human, but from their looks and their possessions. So if a kid is not lucky enough, or skilled enough, to get this “added value,” he or she will feel an outcast. As outcast as Erik Harris and Dylan Klebold felt.

And while Littleton's killing rampage becomes a bloody ditto to what has already happened in Arkansas, Kentucky and Oregon, the quest for an explanation brings the most absurd theories, raising questions about how sensible the quest is in the first place.

In March 1998, President Clinton promised to call the best experts in the country together to fix the problem of school shootings. His misplaced confidence was based on the erroneous conviction that technological society can address human problems as if they were so many malfunctions of a machine.

But, why are these social calamities occurring? It is not for this regular Juan to say. But I can share an impression: Despite its power and wealth, the United States seems to be falling into the spiritual darkness and the moral relativism that preceded the decline of other great empires in history.

However, current history is not yet written. And the Holy Father, with his call to a united American continent, with a common spiritual ground, is hoping that Catholics can provide a new evangelization and a springtime of the faith.

Alejandro Bermudez is the Register's Latin America correspondent.